I’m reading a book by Niall Ferguson called Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World. It’s a fascinating read and already – I am just under halfway through – we’ve explored piracy, banking and borrowing (a system borrowed from the Dutch no less), colonisation and slavery. And we’ve even been to deepest darkest Africa for one of the most famous salutations in history, “Dr Livingstone, I presume“.
The latest chapter covers the Victorian Empire and I’ve just finished reading about India and Queen Victoria’s increased interest in foreign affairs following the Indian Mutiny in 1857. What is interesting about this particular time in history is that the ‘world’ is shrinking. The far reaches of the imperial fold are becoming more accessible with steam power and advances in iron being used to industrialise the empire. Travelling by steamer is reducing journey times and technology is driving industry and commerce to the point where consumerism is no longer restricted to the ruling classes.
In our modern day lives, the world is literally at our fingertips with news from across the globe available in a matter of minutes. But did you ever think about where it all started?
Francis Ronalds offered his idea of the telegraph to the Navy in 1816. The Admiralty turned it down and it took the private sector to see – and develop – its possibilities for overland communication. However, it wasn’t until the adoption of a rubber-like substance from Malaya called gutta-percha that durable undersea cables could be manufactured, opening up the potential of Ronalds’ brainchild to expansion on a global scale.
And so it was that in 1851 the first cross-channel cable was laid with the first transatlantic cable to follow in 1866. By 1880 over 97,000 miles of cable criss-crossed the world, joining continent with continent and creating the world’s first global communications network.
So as we log on, read emails, surf for news and opinions and tap-tap-tap away to cast our particular version of word-smithery out into the digital ether, let’s give a nod to the acquisitive ambition of the British Empire.
And to the miracle of gutta-percha…
…the original information super highway.